The reopening of New York is getting a soundtrack. Mayor de Blasio has asked Clive Davis, the nearly nonagenarian record-business legend, to pull together a Central Park concert for the ages. It’s tentatively scheduled for August 21. No word yet on who’ll be onstage, but it’s hard to imagine a New York artist who’d reject the call if it came. It’s a great idea, as has been borne out by experience. Especially when New York has been going through a tough moment, a Central Park concert has been a largely unifying, joyous experience.
The most thoroughly remembered, of course, is Simon & Garfunkel in 1981. Half a million people showed up. (The two men live on Central Park West and Fifth Avenue, respectively, which meant that they were playing their own shared front yard.) It was a reunion, because the duo had split up extremely rancorously in 1970, and to a lot of baby boomers who’d come of age with them, it felt like a dissonance had finally resolved itself. That was perhaps true for Simon and Garfunkel themselves: You can hear Artie’s voice open up with emotion on the later verses of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” (Ten years after that, in August 1991, Paul Simon performed again in the park, this time solo. I had moved to Manhattan two weeks earlier, and that night was the first step in my becoming a proper New Yorker: I had put on the live broadcast of the concert in my tiny apartment, and then said to myself, Wait a minute, dummy, you live here now — you can just walk up there and hear it. So I did.)
The Philharmonic, too, has regularly brought people together on the Great Lawn, as does Shakespeare in the Park over at the Delacorte. SummerStage turned the one-offs into a series, on a smaller and wonderful scale. On a more solemn night a year after 9/11, a park concert featured an array of artists from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s to Billy Joel. Even a pair of Diana Ross shows that went awry in 1983 were, let’s say, learning experiences: Mostly what everyone learned was “don’t try to power through and ignore a colossal thunderstorm.” Good for drama, though, and the video is a keeper.
Clive Davis, for his part, has a big question before him: Who could possibly be the epic closing act on such a program? Is it an enormous star of recent years, like Lady Gaga or Cardi B? (Or will Taylor Swift kick off the night with “Welcome to New York”?) Is it instead a classic-rock oldster hugely identified with the city? Billy Joel doing “New York State of Mind,” Deborah Harry doing any damn thing she wants to? Or — and this would be the choice of at least one of us here at Curbed dot com — how about Jay Z and Alicia Keys doing “Empire State of Mind”? There’s nothin’ you can’t do / these streets will make you feel brand new.